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Rizana Nafeek needs justice

The story of Rizana Nafeek teaches us many lessons.
The untold sufferings that our daughters, sisters and mothers have to endure at the hands of cruel sponsors in countries that are hundreds of miles away from their families, being just one of them.
How poor are we, economically, socially, morally and culturally that our underage daughters have to resort to forging their birth certificates to seek employment in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries?
How long are we going to continue selling our daughters for this modern day slavery, despite countless reports of abuse, harassment and brutality at the hands of their hard-hearted sponsors?
How desperate are we, as a nation, for foreign exchange that we continue to forfeit the lives and dreams of our future generations?
Her story also points to the extreme poverty that a large segment of our society is burdened with. Decades-long war and the 2004 tsunami have left scores of families destitute forcing them to seek employment abroad.
There have been several attempts to reduce the number of unskilled workers, especially housemaids, employed in the Middle East.
However, every month, hundreds of Rizanas alter their vital statistics – some even change their religion – to seek greener pastures in these oil-rich nations.
But, whether the tuppence they earn in exchange for the greater sacrifices they make is worth that effort is a matter that requires more than a mere thought

What is Sharia Law?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy under the rule of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and is governed on the basis of Sharia law.
Sharia law, which derives from the teachings of the Qur’an as well as from Sunna, the practice of the prophet Mohammed, is implemented to varying degrees in different Islamic countries.
Within Sharia law, there is a specific set of offences known as the Hudud offences. These are crimes punishable by specific penalties, such as stoning, lashes, the severing of a hand. The penalties for hudud offences are not universally adopted as law in Muslim states. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia that claim to live under pure Sharia law enforce severe penalties for criminal offences, including beheading.
Also, according to the Sharia, if one causes the death or injury of another person accidentally or intentionally, he or she has to pay blood money or diya. The blood money is to be paid to the victim’s family as compensation and the amount is given in accordance with Sharia.
On the other hand, if the father of the victim decides to forgive, the culprit can be prevented from being subjected to capital punishment.

By Rukshana Rizwie and Vindya Amaranayake

When Rizana Nafeek, a woodcutter’s daughter from the war-ravaged Mutur, arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on May 4, 2005, she must have been hoping to build a better life for her family.
Now, more than five years later, her life is hanging in the balance.
Only 18 days after her arrival in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, she was arrested for murder, and then convicted.

A few days ago, Riyadh Supreme Court endorsed the death sentence on the now 22-year-old Rizana.
Human rights organisations repeatedly appealed to Saudi authorities with no avail. And, Sri Lanka’s former Deputy Foreign Minister Husain Bhaila made a personal request to the victim’s father, which did not bear fruit. And now as a final resort, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made an appeal on behalf of Rizana to the Saudi King, which has been communicated through diplomatic channels.
Now, the girl’s family and the entire nation are awaiting the response of the King, for she is yet to learn that her appeal has been rejected by the Supreme Court.
Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry is still hopeful that Rizana’s life could be saved.
A ministry source confided that despite the fact that all legal avenues to save her had been exhausted, there are still diplomatic ways that are yet to be explored.
It has been several years since her story dominated both local and international media attention. However, over the past couple of years, she has been forgotten, buried under numerous other cases of housemaid abuse and all this while she has been imprisoned in a Riyadh prison.
“We too have received word that the sentence has been confirmed, but wish to believe that there is yet a lot that we could do to save her,” said the official.
Officials confer that despite the legal ruling, all death sentences are passed on to the Governorate of the particular district where the alleged murder had taken place, for his approval of the sentence, after which it is then passed on to the Interior Ministry of Saudi Arabia.
The Interior Ministry in the Kingdom is equivalent to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Public Administration here in Sri Lanka.
The Ministry of Interior in Saudi Arabia consists of the heads of Royal Family with King Abdullah bin Abdualaziz Al Saud at the top of the hierarchy.
All hopes are pinned on his clemency.

How it happened
On May 22, 2005, 18 days after Rizana arrived in Saudi Arabia she was asked to care for her sponsors’ son, a four-month old infant.
Rizana was only 17 years old at the time and had no prior training or experience in child care.
The baby chocked when she tried to bottle feed him and Rizana frantically tried to soothe him by rubbing his chest, neck and back while calling out to the sponsor’s wife.
But, by the time she arrived, the baby was unconscious or already dead.
Rizana was working for Naif Jiziyan Khklafal Otaibi at their residence in Dawdami (390km west of the capital Riyadh.)
Rizana was immediately arrested and a confession which she had to sign at the Police station earned her the repute of an infanticide.
Parents of the deceased child claimed that she strangled the child.
Rizana was not given access to lawyers during her interrogation or any of the events leading up to her trial.
She said she was questioned by police in a language she didn’t understand and had to sign documents which she couldn’t read.

Her life
Rizana is the eldest in a family of four children from Mutur.
Her poverty-stricken family presumed that sending their daughter would help them support the family. Despite the fact that Rizana was only 17 years of age at the time, her passport was forged to say that she was born on February 2, 1982 when her real date of birth, according to her birth certificate is February 4, 1988.
Rizana arrived in Jeddah on May 4, 2005, but was soon taken to Riyadh where she had to work for a family of 10 children from 4 am. She had no training on baby sitting and no experience taking care of an infant.

Court case
Rizana first appeared in courts on February 3, 2007, which is where she retracted her original confession stating that the confession had been obtained by the Police under duress.
On June 16 that year, she was sentenced to death for the murder.
The bench comprised a three-member panel of judges led by Chief Judge Abdullah Abdualaziz Al Rosaini.
By then, the Asian Human Rights Commission took matters into their own hands by paying a legal fee of US$ 40,000 (150,000 Saudi Riyals) and assigning a lawyer to proceed with an appeal.
AHRC claimed that Rizana could not be tried or convicted for murder because she was a juvenile at the time.
It stated that Saudi Arabia is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly prohibits the execution of offender for crimes committed under the age of 18.
July 16, 2007 was the deadline and the AHRC were able to lodge an appeal in time.
The Sri Lankan Government at the time refused to pay that insurmountable sum.

Rizana meets her family
For the first time since her arrest, Rizana met her family in prison.
The meeting as arranged by the then visiting Deputy Foreign Minister Husain Bhaila who said the meeting was a very emotional one for both Rizana and her parents.
He was not allowed to see her and only her parents were allowed to speak to her in the cell.

Verdict reviewed
Rizana spent many months in prison before finally appearing in courts again.
In December, her case was sent back to the Dawadmi courts to review its verdict.
It was also at this time that negotiations with Rizana’s sponsor had taken place with the hope that he might pardon her.


• Her passport indicates that Rizana was born in February 1982, but her birth certificate and her claims make out that she was born on February 4, 1988
• Saudi Arabia is party to Convention on the Rights of Child, which explicitly prohibits the execution of offenders for crimes committed under the age of 18
• The actual incident: Rizana was asked to care for the four-month old baby boy who was also to be fed. On May 22, while she was feeding the child, he began to choke. Panicking, Rizana tried to soothe the child by rubbing his chest, neck and face, while shouting for help. Hearing the shouts the mother came running, but by that time the baby was either unconscious or already dead
• The couple accused Rizana of strangling the baby and handed her over to police
• At the police station, she was made to sign a confession which was only in Arabic and she was not provided or told of what the document stated
• The court asked the father repeatedly if he wished to pardon her, but he declined
• Under Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Sharia, a death sentence for premeditated murder can be quashed through a pardon from the victim’s family on the basis of ‘diya,’ or blood money.

However, several times he had point blankly refused to speak to anyone and the leader of the tribe he belonged to said Rizana was guilty.
The case then kept bouncing back and forth between the Dawadmi Court and the Supreme Judicial Council to no avail.

Rizana turns 20 behind bars
Rizana’s case was taken up again in June, 2008, the same year she turned 20 behind bars. By then, news of her imprisonment, pleas from her family and the desperate attempts by the diplomatic community had the local public, both in Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka feeling much empathy towards her case.
Many hoped she would be allowed to go home.
Rizana appeared in courts for the fourth time on June 9, 2008.
Her lawyer at the Dawadmi High Court questioned the validity of the Arabic translator who was asked to assist Rizana.
The court ruled that the Supreme Judicial Council will have to address the attorney’s objection and her case was again referred to the higher court for judgment.
Positive outcome
Her case was again taken up on December 21, 2009 where a positive outcome heralded newfound hope for her release.
The High Court in Dawadmi rejected a Police interpreter who was brought into translate her statement, and instead offered Rizana the help of an Indian electrician Abdul Careem to serve her as an interpreter.

Despite all these attempts, Rizana is still languishing in a prison with no sign of clemency from the authorities.
Whether she will be able to return to the country of her birth safely or whether her life will be taken in a public execution is an eventuality that the entire country is anxiously awaiting.
Amnesty International this week called on the King of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of Rizana.
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, Malcolm Smart said:
“It would be outrageous if Rizana Nafeek were to be executed for this crime. It appears that she was herself a child at the time and there are real concerns about the fairness of her trial.
“Saudi Arabia has had one of the highest rates of executions in the world, with migrants from poor and developing countries among the main victims.”